In the Center of the Earthquake

Les Surprises de la Loubianka: nouvelles découvertes dans les archives littéraires du KGB

by Vitaly Shentalinsky, French translation by Galia Ackerman and Pierre Lorrain
Laffont, 361 pp., FF149

On Christmas Eve 1918, Lenin was being driven in his Rolls-Royce on the outskirts of Moscow when four men flagged him down, pulled him out at gun point, and searched his pockets. Lenin shouted, “Don’t you know who I am?” “I don’t care,” replied the leader of the gang, one Jacov Kochelkov, also known as The Wallet. “I’m the king of Moscow.” Seizing Lenin’s identification papers and his Browning pistol, The Wallet jumped into the Rolls-Royce and roared off, leaving the leader of the Revolution, his bodyguard, and his chauffeur to tramp through the snow to a local Party headquarters to find a car to take them back to the Kremlin.

The Cheka launched a manhunt to track down The Wallet, but he eluded capture for six months, until agents lured him to a Moscow apartment and gunned him down. In his pocket they found a love letter, a roll of bank-notes pierced by a bullet hole, and Lenin’s Browning revolver.

This story was uncovered by Vitaly Shentalinsky from the KGB files and has just been published in France. Besides allowing us to imagine how history would have turned out had The Wallet not let Lenin slip through his hands, the story also illuminates the shadowy links between the security organs and the world of literature. The Cheka agent who gunned down The Wallet decided to turn his exploits into a detective story for a Moscow literary journal, but he was unhappy with the result and gave it to Isaac Babel to be rewritten. An inspired choice: Babel did some translating for the Cheka and his Odessa Stories are masterpieces of criminal slang. According to Shentalinsky, Babel sharpened up the dialogue, dispensed with the detective’s feeble attempts at romanticizing The Wallet, and contributed a short introduction of his own.

Despite Babel’s ghostwriting, The Bandits, which was submitted to a literary review in 1925, never saw the light of day and remained on the shelves of the Lubyanka prison until Shentalinsky stumbled upon it in the early 1990s. Learning this about Babel would be something like learning that William Faulkner had ghosted detective fiction for the Los Angeles Police Department. But Babel was not the only one. In the early Twenties, Mikhail Bulgakov also eked out a living correcting the punctuation and livening up the dialogue of the detective fiction produced in their spare time by the frustrated writers of the Cheka.

As Shentalinsky digs deeper into the archives—this is his second book of discoveries1—it becomes clearer that the relationship between the “organs”—as the Cheka and its successors the NKVD and KGB came to be known—and twentieth-century Russian literature was not simply a matter of repression. Babel knew two of the heads of the secret police under Stalin and was even reputed to have had an affair with the wife of one of them. The Soviet Terror included moments of surreal intimacy between predator and victim. The head of the NKVD, Genrikh Yagoda, was a frequent guest at Maxim…

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